Govt can intercept any message in the name of public safety, states new telecom draft bill
The draft bill also only recognises people as journalists if they have been accredited by state or Central governments
The new telecommunications bill proposed by the Union government states that the government may, in the interest of public safety, direct the interception of any message between individuals and the Central government to take control of, manage or suspend any telecommunication services, networks, or their components linked to such services in the event of a public emergency.
Union telecommunications minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Monday introduced the Telecommunications Bill 2023 in the Lok Sabha, amidst protest by Opposition leaders over the breach of security in Parliament last week. The bill, which was cleared by the Union cabinet in August, intends to replace the Indian Telegraph Act 1885, Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act 1933 and Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act 1950, which govern the telecom sector.
In case of journalists, the draft bill states that messages of journalists accredited to state or Central governments “would not be intercepted or detained, unless their transmission has been prohibited” because of “national security”. The draft bill only recognises people as journalists if they have been accredited by state or Central governments.
"The press messages, intended to be published in India, of correspondents accredited to the Central Government or a State Government shall not be intercepted or detained, unless their transmission has been prohibited under clause (a) of sub-section (2)," states the draft bill.
The bill also states that the Union government may “direct that any telecommunication service or class of telecommunication services to or from any person or class of persons, to or from any telecommunication equipment or class of telecommunication equipment, or relating to any particular subject, transmitted or received by any telecommunication service or telecommunication network, shall be suspended”.
The government has stated that it can take over any telecommunications network in case of public emergency. The draft bill says, “On the occurrence of any public emergency, including disaster management, or in the interest of public safety, the Central Government or a State Government or any officer specially authorised in this behalf by the Central Government or a State Government, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, by notification (a) take temporary possession of any telecommunication service or telecommunication network from an authorised entity."
The bill doesn’t mention over the top (OTT) services in its definition of telecom services, but defines telecom services as “any service for telecommunication”.
The draft bill states that any person providing telecommunications services without authorisation will be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine which may extend up to Rs 2 crore, or both.
“Whoever provides telecommunication services or establishes telecommunication network without authorisation under sub-section (1) of section 3, or causes damage to critical telecommunication infrastructure shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine which may extend up to two crore rupees, or with both,” reads the bill.
The draft bill warns that if anyone contravenes any measures specified in the notification on national security will also be punished with imprisonment and a fine. “Whoever wilfully contravenes any measures specified in the notification on national security under section 21 shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine which may extend up to Rs two crore, or with both and the Central Government may, if it deems fit, also suspend or terminate the telecommunication service of such person.”
Retaining the right to allocate spectrum, the government has stated that it being the owner of the spectrum on behalf of the people, shall assign the spectrum in accordance with this act, and may notify a National Frequency Allocation Plan from time to time.
“The Central Government may prescribe such terms and conditions as may be applicable, for such assignment of spectrum, including the frequency range, methodology for pricing, price, fees and charges, payment mechanism, duration and procedure for the same. The Central Government shall assign spectrum for telecommunication through auction except for entries listed in the First Schedule for which assignment shall be done by administrative process,” states the draft Bill.
The government has stated that any spectrum assigned through the administrative process prior to the appointed day, will be valid for a period of five years.
Digital Bharat Nidhi
The government, through the bill, has changed the name of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) to Digital Bharat Nidhi, under the control of the Union government.
The USO fund was established initially with the objective of providing access to "basic" telegraph services to people in remote and rural areas at affordable and reasonable prices. All amounts payable under licences granted prior to the appointed day towards the USO shall be deemed to be the amounts payable towards Digital Bharat Nidhi.
The sums of money received towards the Digital Bharat Nidhi under section 24 shall first be credited to the Consolidated Fund of India, and the Central government may, if Parliament by appropriation made by law in this behalf so provides, credit such proceeds to the Digital Bharat Nidhi from time to time for being utilised exclusively to meet the telecom needs of the country.